Alaska editorial: Remember safety on Alaska waters

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Peninsula Clarion:

Bad news on the water in the last couple of weeks has left the Coast Guard busy and a few people shaky.

The Alaska Ranger was on its way to mackerel grounds in the Bering Sea when it began taking on water Sunday in rough water.

The vessel sank, killing five people; 42 were rescued.

On March 16, the outcome was a little more successful after a foursome was crossing Kachemak Bay aboard a 20-foot johnboat - an aluminum, flat-bottomed vessel - when a wave broke over the bow, filled the boat with water, caused it to capsize and sent the four occupants and their dog into the 38-degree water.

The men took turns kneeling on the bow of the boat to minimize their time in the water. Luckily a man and his family spotted them and called the Coast Guard. After three hours, the four and their dog were rescued.

In each of these incidents, precautions were taken. The 42 survivors from the Ranger were in survival suits and rafts. The five who died, which included the captain, didn't make it to the rafts, and apparently spent six hours in the water, succumbing to hypothermia.

Down in Homer, the boat owner, Ryan Skorecki of Girdwood, had emergency equipment onboard. Each occupant was wearing a flotation device, they had cell phones, a marine radio and flares.

Unfortunately, the saltwater disabled most of the cell phones, except the one in a dry bag under the hull - the same place the flares were. And the marine radio quit working.

The group tried to signal for help using the metal faceplate of a cell phone and a knife blade. They also blew whistles. However, that stopped when they realized how much energy they were exerting.

Now that signs of breakup are beginning to show, it won't be long before tourists start flocking to the Kenai Peninsula to get their fill of scenery and fish. That means the boats are coming out.

We've already seen quite a few heading toward the water, and given the accidents above, it's a good time to remind anyone planning to get out onto the water that safety goes a long way.

Skorecki, who is a commercial pilot, told a reporter that for everything he put on his boat, he should have taken the same precautions he does before flying.

"What upset me is that I didn't apply those same rules to myself for a boat trip," he said, such as a float plan. He said he and his friends filed one with the harbormaster, but they didn't take time to call before leaving Bear Cove.

"There's no reason why we didn't call and say we were leaving and would be there in 45 minutes, or call any of our friends and say if we hadn't called within an hour something was wrong," he said. "That would have made a three-hour ordeal maybe a half hour."

With so many boaters on the water around the peninsula, there are several ways you can protect yourself and other aboard the vessel. Here are a few tips from the United States Coast Guard:

• Take a boating safety course. Know what you need to know before you get on the water. In Alaska, the state even offers online courses.

• Get a free vessel safety check from the Coast Guard. Dangerous mechanical problems can crop up on the best-maintained boat.

• Make sure you have the right equipment onboard, from floatation devices for every passenger to flares and smoke signals. And leave a float plan with someone so help can get to you quickly when something goes wrong.

As is the case in every journey you take when you leave home, just be prepared for anything. That way you'll be around to enjoy it again next year.

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